‘Cow-Boy’ History: Doc Holliday Out West

OK Corral, Tombstone, Arizona

OK Corral, Tombstone, Arizona

Doc Holliday’s sojourn in Las Vegas, New Mexico, continued, and he got mixed up with a group known locally as the “Dodge City Gang” led by Hoodoo Brown. There were New Town and Old Town factions vying for control, plus stagecoach robberies and a short visit by Wyatt Earp presumably working for Wells Fargo. As might be expected, Doc got into another shooting scrape, this time with a bartender named Charlie Wright, who’d been an enemy in Dodge City. Wright was only slightly wounded, and no charges were placed against Holliday. In October 1879, Earp left for Prescott, Arizona, and Doc went with him. There, in the territorial capital, Doc built the Holliday Saloon and again entered into a period of near stability. There are some records showing Doc lived a while in Albuquerque and even returned to Las Vegas for a period, but like a lot of gamblers who followed “the circuit” of boomtowns, his next residence was in the mining town of Tombstone, where the Earp brothers had relocated to earlier.

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As a lot of readers will already know, Tombstone was beset by a criminal gang known as the “Cow-Boys” who rustled cattle and were thought to be responsible for several stagecoach robberies, one of which resulted in the death of driver Bud Philpott and passenger Peter Roerig in March 1881. The gang included such worthies as Curly Bill Brocius and John Ringo, plus the Clantons and McLaurys. Pima County Sheriff Johnny Behan was in league with the gang as they tried to shift blame for some of the criminal activity to Doc Holliday and the Earps. Virgil Earp became marshal of Tombstone in June and at various times was assisted by brothers Wyatt (who was appointed a deputy U.S. marshal) and Morgan, along with Doc Holliday. More robberies and shootings furthered the bad blood in Tombstone and events came to a head on October 26, 1881. A town ordinance prohibited the carrying of firearms in Tombstone, and Virgil Earp received information that some of the Cow-Boys were packing guns and had been last seen on Fremont Street near the OK Corral. Virgil went to the area to disarm the gang members assisted by Wyatt, Morgan and Doc. In the now-legendary shootout that resulted, Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Claiborne were killed and Virgil, Morgan and Doc were wounded. Wyatt and Doc were later arrested and held in jail by Sheriff Behan, but Judge Spicer exonerated them both on November 30, 1881.

Retaliation by the Cow-Boys resulted in the shotgun ambush and severe wounding of Virgil Earp on December 28, 1881, and the assassination of Morgan Earp on March 17, 1882. The result of these two incidents was the infamous vendetta by Wyatt, Doc and some other Earp confederates. The end came the next day for Cow-Boy Frank Stilwell, who Wyatt shotgunned in Tucson. An Indian named Florentino Cruz was killed on March 21, and then on the March 24, Wyatt killed Curly Bill Brocius at Iron Springs. Even though the Earp group was acting as deputy U.S. marshals and all those killed were suspects in the death of Morgan Earp, Sheriff Behan lead a posse in pursuit of them—a posse containing a number of known Cow-Boys. The Earp contingent left Arizona for New Mexico in April and arrived in Albuquerque on April 16. The group stayed there for two weeks, and during this time Wyatt and Doc had a falling out and separated. The last Cow-Boy to die that may or may not be attributed to the vendetta was John Ringo, whose death in January 1882 was attributed by legend to Doc.

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What Holliday needed most was money, and his gambling pursuits took him to Colorado; first to Pueblo, then Leadville, a gambler’s “field of dreams.” While there Doc’s health took a turn for the worse and he stayed clear of trouble. Doc reputedly went to Dodge City with Wyatt and Bat Masterson to help Luke Short, who was embroiled in trouble there in June 1883. Back in Leadville and on through 1884, Doc ran three faro games, but his worsening consumption resulted in heavy drinking and laudanum use. As Holliday’s health deteriorated, so did his finances, and he borrowed some money from a former policeman named Billy Allen. In a fight over the debt on August 18, Doc shot Allen with his revolver—a .41- or .44-caliber Colt—and was then jailed. The case went to trial in March 1885, and Doc ended up being acquitted. Doc went to Denver and had a reunion with Wyatt Earp in May 1885, where they parted for the last time. Doc Holliday returned to Leadville and remained there during 1886 and into the spring of 1887, when he caught a stage for Glenwood Springs. Doc was wasting away while he lived in the Hotel Glenwood and tended bar. Finally confined to bed, Doc didn’t say a word for some 24 hours. On November 8, 1887, at 10:00 a.m., John Henry Holliday passed away. A truly enigmatic figure of the Old West became a legend.

This article originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST. For print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST, please email subscriptions@outdoorgroupmags.com or call 1-800-284-5668.